California's Role in the Civil War

  • Print


The Civil War was a pivotal event in the history of the United States, but few realize California’s important role in that conflict. Troops from the Drum Barracks had the important responsibility of keeping California in the Union, protecting the local citizenry, the Wilmington Harbor and much of southern California and securing the territory that is now Arizona and New Mexico for the Union.

California Had Political Power and Impact

One major issue was in the political arena. In the Congress, representation in the House of Representatives is based on population. The more people you have, the more representatives you can send to the House. As the North had a larger population, they had long controlled the House of Representatives. In the Senate, each state has two Senators, regardless of population. The North and the South each had an equal number of Senators, and the Southern states felt they had a political voice in the Senate, even if they were outvoted in the House of Representatives.

California was to enter the Union as two states. The northern one would be a "free" state called California and the southern one would be a territory which was to immediately become a “slave” state to be called Colorado.  This would maintain the balance of power in the Senate between the Northern “free” states and the Southern "slave" states.

When California entered the Union as one free state, the South saw the balance of power that they had so tenaciously hung onto in the Senate disappear. Southerners were extremely upset and many people feel that the entrance of California into the Union marks the real beginning of the Civil War.

In other political action, which brought the states rights issue to the forefront here, Californians voted in 1859 to split into two states. Both were to be free states. The Federal government in Washington D.C. said no; it refused to allow it. Californians were outraged that the federal government could overrule the decision of a state.

When just two years later the Civil War began, many here in California were supporters of the Southern secession based, not on the issue of slavery, but on the issue of a state’s right to choose to do something which the Federal government opposed. This "state’s rights" issue is still a lively topic today over issues such as medical marijuana and gay marriage.

So, even though California was a free Union state, it had strong Confederate sympathies, also due in part to the fact that many residents had transplanted here from the South.

Economic Power – Gold and a Free Harbor

California and its rich gold resources were an attractive prospect for both the Union and the Confederacy. Some figures show that California’s gold paid for nearly one-fourth of the Union’s war expenses.

Once the war began in 1861, the Confederacy began eying the possibility of gaining Southern California as a Confederate state. Not only did it have gold, but also because of the Union blockade of all the Southern ports, the harbors here had a great appeal. For without accessibility to Europe the South had no market to sell its cotton for income and a free harbor was a necessity to import the supplies required to wage the war.

While the northern port of San Francisco was in an area that was strongly for the Union, there were enough Southern sympathizers in the Los Angeles/Wilmington/San Pedro area to make the Confederacy consider this a possible addition to the Confederate states. The addition of a free port would do much to add credibility to the South’s quest for recognition as a sovereign nation by other countries of the world.

Social Power – California's Role as the Land of Opportunity

Society was repeating Horace Greeley’s cry of "Go West, young man," as it was believed this was where opportunity lay for hardworking men and women. The popular concept of Manifest Destiny was that the United States of America was destined to stretch from the Atlantic to Pacific oceans and to become a powerful world leader. This was where it was happening, where dreams came true through hard work and determination. California represented the American future.

Action in the Far West

As early as July of 1861, a group of Texans, led by Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor, head captured the southern half of the New Mexico Territory and renamed it the Confederate Territory of Arizona. In the fall of 1861, Confederate Brig. Gen. Henry Sibley was given permission by Confederate President Jefferson David to open a wider corridor to California through the upper New Mexico and Arizona territories to capture the gold fields near San Francisco. The fighting raged up and down the Rio Grande River with Sibley fighting Union Col. Edward Canby in an attempt to take control of the Union forts lining the great river, the border between Texas and the New Mexico Territory.

Back in Los Angeles, the danger of a takeover from within was becoming alarming. In May of 1861, the Union War Department ordered Major James Henry Carleton and his First Dragoons from Fort Tejon to Los Angeles to protect a one-man quartermaster depot occupied only by Captain Winfield Scott Hancock, chief quartermaster for the Army’s District of Southern California. (Hancock would be a general by the time of the Battle of Gettysburg.) The Dragoons settled into a temporary tent encampment just south of the depot and named it Camp Fitzgerald. This camp was abandoned after a few months in favor of a new site named Camp Latham, located along Ballona Creek in what is today Culver City. This camp would not last long wither, because it was soon determined that a post nearer the harbor was needed.

The first site chosen was a half-mile from the harbor on a low sandy plain where the old and leaky tents gave little protection from the wind, sand, or rain. This was named Camp Drum and it was from this camp that newly promoted Col. Carleton and the California Column would head out in April of 1862 to help stop the Confederate invasion of the New Mexico and Arizona Territories.

When the California Column finally reached the Rio Grande River in August of 1862, the Confederate troops had retreated and the threat of invasion of California and the western territories was effectively over. Parts of the California Column were scattered throughout the Southwest, occupying the forts, dealing with the Indians and protecting the territory from any further Confederate invasion for the remainder of the war.

The Military Post of Drum Barracks is Built

Hancock was a friend of prominent Los Angeles citizen and fervent Unionist, Phineas Banning. Banning had become wealthy by establishing a booming freight business in the New San Pedro area, which he later renamed "Wilmington" after his birthplace in Delaware. Hancock and Banning agreed upon the need for a strong Union military presence, so Banning, along with business partner Benjamin D. Wilson, donated a tract of land to the U.S. Government for the building of permanent facilities. Wilson, a prominent businessman in his own right, was the second mayor of Los Angeles, a wealthy rancher, and later, grandfather to General George S. Patton. Banning and Wilson would receive a payment of $1 for the land.

This land, which was on higher ground and about a half mile away from Camp Drum, would become the site of the Drum Barracks military post. It was an ideal location, because the nearby wharf owned by Banning was useful for receiving supplies and troops and also served as the departure point for troops going to the East. A tract of 4-1/2 acres on the waterfront was also part of the post and was called the Wilmington Depot, U.S. Depot, or Government Depot.

This deal was beneficial for Banning in several ways. He was promised the military shipping contracts to supply the bases in the Southwest, he was helping to protect his state from a hostile Confederate takeover, and the land he and Wilson donated would be returned to them after the war ended, and became a profitable investment in years to come.

Lumber was ordered from New York, shipped around the Horn, and arrived in late 1862. Construction began immediately and the post was estimated to cost one million dollars to build. All the buildings were completed by September 1863 and occupied by commanding officer Lt. Col. James Freeman Curtis. Eventually California would have over 17,000 volunteer soldiers, and this facility would be the staging area for over 8,000 of those soldiers headed out to guard the Southwest.

This strong military presence at the hotspots of Southern hostility had the desired effect; trouble was confined to a few demonstrations and public displays of Confederate flags for the balance of the war and California remained firmly in the Union.